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A Medical Medium

60_250As I've mentioned, I'm fascinated by what psychics and mediums do. I've long been convinced by the academic research that it's a real process. But how does it start? What exactly do they experience?

Not being psychic at all, to me mediums seem like a different species. Many of them say they've always had the gift, that as children they saw dead people, and assumed everyone did, and so on. They're so much part of the whole psychic spiritualism thing, with its jargon of 'energy' and 'vibrations', that it takes an effort of will to enter into their world. Some small part of me still thinks it's all made up.

But what if someone who is very much part of the real world - if there is such a thing - were to cross over? Doctors, for instance. I've always considered them to be a highly sceptical bunch, having been trained in the rationalist, problem-solving scientific tradition.

Years ago I recall visiting my local GP about a minor complaint carrying with me a book about psi research. He commented on this, having just read somewhere that ESP had been definitively debunked. (I believe it was an article by Susan Blackmore, who was pretty much everywhere at the time.) He wasn't hostile, but I got the sense that it would be pointless trying to convince him otherwise.

So I was glad when I was recently given an excellent book about a London GP who works as a spirit medium. It's called Consulting Spirit: A Doctor's Experience with Practical Mediumship, by Ian D. Rubenstein. (I thought at first he must be an American, since the book uses American terms like 'primary care physician' but it turns out this is only because the book is published in the US.)

Rubenstein's experience started in his surgery one day when a patient having his blood pressure checked suddenly said he had a man with him, and he wanted to have a word. The doctor had previously had no idea that this patient, a public relations whizz in the entertainment world, had anything to do with spirits. But went along with it, and to his complete astonishment the man then channelled his grandfather with a 20-minute discussion about Rubenstein's personal life.

Rubenstein subsequently learned this was something that he should be doing too, and started having powerful and accurate intuitions. He talks about receiving what feels like a 'tug' or even a 'slap' on the back of the head. This happened once when he chucked his car keys on the table just as he was going out, knowing he wouldn't need them; he felt a slap and a verbal warning to take them or they would get stolen. He ignored it, the keys were stolen, and all kinds of problems ensued.

In one particularly striking incident he hears from an acquaintance at the gym that her grand daughter has swallowed the plastic cap from a pen. It's assumed to be in her digestive system, but Rubenstein has the strong impression that it has lodged in one of her bronchial tubes, which would be much more serious. He convinces the woman and her daughter to have the child tested, but x-rays show nothing wrong. Having spooked them completely they insist on further tests in a major hospital. Still nothing seems amiss.

Finally, to calm the frantic women, a doctor suggests pushing a bronchoscope tube down the girl's windpipe.

That afternoon, the doctor looking after Kirsty extracted the chewed cap of a red plastic ballpoint pen from her right main bronchus. Because she'd chewed it, the plastic cap had frayed into little barbs so that it had begun to embed itself into the wall of the bronchus. It was unlikely she would have been able to cough it up. The consequences of it being left in her lung for any length of time would have been disastrous for Kirsty's health. She would have developed pneumonia or possibly even a serious chronic lung condition called bronchiectasis.

A useful come-back to the 'what good does it do?' complaint that sceptics always make about psychics, methinks.

Encouraged to go into it more deeply, Rubenstein joined a training circle at a spiritualist church. His first experience at the circle involved sitting in a circle and trying to focus on the first image that came into his head - as he says, the complete opposite of what they teach you at medical school. But he quickly discovered that the images were meaningful to other people. The figures he saw, and the situations they described, were understood and accepted by them, with a level of detail that makes any kind of chance or Barnum effect implausible.

Here's an example:

In my mind's eye, I could still clearly see Jane, standing behind Hayley. But behind her I became aware of an altogether more shadowy presence. This was a woman, older than Jane, with gray hair and wearing a floral dress. She was smiling and had her hands on Jane's shoulders. Then the image changed and became more vivid. I experienced the startlingly clear vision of a crystal chandelier, which took up my entire inner field of view. It radiated a powerful light and I could clearly see rainbow colors refracted from the cut crystal.

With that, I felt I'd suddenly been handed a vast amount of information about this woman; as if she'd somehow dropped it into my head, all at once.

I heard myself saying, very quickly, "I can see a crystal chandelier. There wasn't just one - she had lots of them. Her house was full of crystal chandeliers. She was very proud of her house. It was always neat. She was very close to you. I think she was your grandmother or maybe your grandmother's sister. She had a stroke and was incapacitated towards the end of her life... Then I started to splutter... I felt an intense happiness welling up in my chest. It became impossible to contain it and I burst into tears. Everyone in the room was looking at me. I couldn't help it. I was overcome with emotion. Then I lost the connection. It just went. I could remember what I'd seen but the vividness of the information was not longer so apparent. The emotions I'd been feeling had suddenly disappeared, as if someone had thrown a switch. However, the image of the crystal chandelier remained very clear - I can still recall it.

Hayley was looking at me intensely. "That was my aunt. My great aunt. You got her exactly right. And she loved crystal chandeliers. But the best bit is the fact that you're crying." "Why?" I asked. I felt extremely foolish. I hadn't cried in public since I was a child. "Because nine years or so before she died she'd had a stroke, like you said. It affected her brain. She became much more emotional. She used to cry whenever she was happy." I was pleased but I felt as if I'd been put through the wringer. My headache was back and I was completely drained of energy.

I found these sorts of detailed descriptions of the inner process quite useful. I also resonated with the way the author dealt with his new experiences. The tone is well judged: he is properly sceptical, in the sense of examining and questioning them, but he doesn't let this get in the way of his curiosity. He doesn't panic or try to suppress his intuitions. Nor does he agonise about what people might think when he develops his mediumship. He just gets on with it. In fact it surprised me how enthusiastically he embraced his new calling, while continuing his professional work. (It helps that he has a supportive wife, and nobody at his work appeared to seriously stand in his way.)

The book is breezy like a novel, written largely in dialogue, which makes it an easy and entertaining read. As I say, it's informative about the process of becoming a medium, and I really recommend it.

But more than that, it's also an important book. Rubenstein has shown how it is possible for an ordinary non-psychic member of society, someone who in his professional work is embedded in rationalist thinking, not merely to adjust to psychic intuition when it arrives unbidden, but to learn how to use it for the benefit of others.

(Since posting this, Ian Rubenstein has been in touch, and is happy to answer any questions readers may have in the comments thread below.)

Plans for the Million Dollar Challenge?

I've been listening to a conversation between organisers of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. They were discussing a test of psychics that they organised for ABC's Primetime Nightline show last summer. It was quite revealing.

The test was set up by the stage magician Banacheck, DJ Grothe (president of the James Randi Educational Foundation), and Jamy Ian Swiss, also a magician and one of JREF'S resident experts on psychics. The clip can't be viewed outside the US, so I can't comment on how it went. But I was struck by the comments of Grothe and Swiss afterwards.

They categorise psychics in three ways. First there are the celebrities, led by the 'Unholy Trinity' of John Edward, James van Praagh and Sylvia Browne. Such people do great harm and make big bucks scamming ordinary people, they complain. They're desperate for scientific endorsement - if they get one they'll never stop talking about it - yet at the same time they're 'desperately afraid' to submit themselves to proper scientific testing. That's why none of them ever pitches for the million dollars.

Then there are the 'store-front' psychics, who offer quick readings off the street for a token fee, then try to bilk their customers with expensive cures for invented ills. The JREF folks were dismayed to learn that Nightline was targeting these people as potential participants, as of course none would submit to testing - and none did.

However they got a number of takers from their third category. These are psychics in the spirituality and New Age community, some of whom accidentally found out about the show and were keen to take part. Swiss calls them 'shut-eyes', by which he means people who actually believe that their psychic powers are real.

Grothe was fascinated by this. The idea of a faker who doesn't realise he/she is faking seemed to be a new idea for him. The psychics he met in the studio were all warm, sincere and kind-hearted, he commented with surprise. It's true, there really are such people, Swiss explained; they just don't realise that what they do is illusory.

Swiss went on to comment that sceptics are far too quick to assume they know what is going on in other people's minds. I'd say that hardly states the case. If they weren't so stuck in their ideological bubble these guys would know that psychic vision isn't just a game played by con artists - it's a mental process that people experience - more often than one would think. Just now I'm reading a book by a doctor who suddenly began having accurate psychic intuitions about real-life situations, followed it up, and is now also a practising amateur medium (a fascinating story for another post). You can't associate with psychics and mediums for long without understanding this. It doesn't have to be taken at face value, but that's where genuine investigation starts, by getting up close.

Grothe and Swiss also talked about the Challenge itself. This time, instead of designing a bespoke test, JREF came up with an off-the-shelf version they could apply more or less to any psychic, whether palm or tarot reader, psychometrist, mediums, or even astrologer. This was the way they'd like to go in future, Swiss said. It would mean the challenge would be more accessible, and they could take it out to the psychic community. 'No preliminaries, a one-shot test, and if you pass we'll give you a million bucks.'

As things stand, the Challenge is not a scientific test, as Swiss himself explicitly said. If someone ever won, he pointed out, it wouldn't mean that person was psychic, it would just mean he/she won on that day. It would be a fluke. (Surely this makes a nonsense of the taunt that psychics, by refusing the Challenge, show how scared they are of scientific testing.)

But there seems to be a certain impulse for change at JREF. When the Challenge was saved, having earlier been slated for retirement by Randi, I recall talk of it being made more transparent and accessible. This is odd, in a way. One of its strengths as a propaganda device has been that it's so opaque. We're invited to take the Great Man's word for it that no one has passed the preliminaries. With rare exceptions that's all there is.

It also succeeds by being so extremely hostile to the idea of what it aims to test. That ensures that no one who is at all gifted will participate, reduces the likelihood that anyone will win, and reinforces expectations of what it will find. As a method of investigation it's a non-starter.

So why tinker with it? It works perfectly well by just sitting there like a big roadblock. Scientists and sceptics love it, as it saves them having to leave their comfort zone.

But if younger, more dynamic people come along, and start doing things with the Challenge, pushing out the boundaries, what then? What might it become? As far as I'm aware there have only been three televised tests, but perhaps we could start seeing more of those. Suppose more psychics and mediums are encouraged to take part. In theory that might raise the chances of someone winning the cash, in which case the Challenge would become the victim of its organisers' overconfidence.

What interests me more is the possibility that, along the way, some of them might start to get a more educated view of psychics, and perhaps even feel that there's something here worth checking out, instead of mindlessly debunking.

I could be wrong, but I thought I glimpsed in this conversation some faint stirrings of seriousness. It would be going too far to call it scientific curiosity, but it might be the precursor to it.

Book Review: Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion

Science delusion

We're used to scientists telling us that the universe is inert matter, that we lack free will, and that our ideas, beliefs and goals are just 'folk psychology'. To voice dissent is to invite sharp correction or be denounced as a follower of pseudoscience. So for those of us who are suspicious of the claims of materialism it's astonishing, and also heartening, to hear a scientist agree that it's a hidebound ideology, dismiss the belief in determinism as a 'delusion' and call on the 'high priests' of science to abandon their 'fantasy of omniscience'.

All this sounds rather rhetorical, and the title of The Science Delusion seems to have been chosen as a counterblast to the Great Panjandrum of scientific orthodoxy himself. But Rupert Sheldrake is not Richard Dawkins, and this is as coloured as his language gets; the book certainly has little about religion. For the most part it's a dispassionate expose of materialism's failures and a plea for scientists to open up to new thinking. The sciences are being held back by 'assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos', he argues. Not only have the most fundamental questions not been answered for all time, they can all be replaced by more interesting and fruitful ones.

Provoking stuff, but despite his reputation as a heretic, gained from his controversial theory of morphic resonance and his psychic research, Sheldrake has impeccable credentials as a biochemist - Cambridge, Harvard, ground-breaking research and a stint in India helping to develop high-yield crops - that demand respect.

Sheldrake identifies ten core beliefs that scientists take for granted: that people and animals are complex mechanisms rather than goal-driven organisms; that matter is unconscious and human consciousness an illusion; that the laws of nature are fixed; that nature is purposeless; that all biological inheritance is carried via material structures like genes, and so on. Each is the basis of a chapter in which he draws attention to unresolved tensions, problems and dilemmas. Most scientists think these will eventually be ironed out. However Sheldrake argues they are symptoms of a deeper malaise, and that the failure of the materialist model to make good on its predictions will eventually lead to its demise.

A key idea for Sheldrake is the existence of information fields that act as a kind of universal memory. Once a form or activity has come into being it provides the blueprint for other similar effects, which may then multiply with ease. The classic example is the formation of crystals, for which Sheldrake has elsewhere provided evidence, but in principle he thinks it can apply to anything, from the development of new organisms to the acquisition of new skills.

This has implications for cosmology, he believes. Far from being set in stone since the Big Bang, nature's laws should be considered as evolving habits that grow stronger through repetition; the universe is an ongoing creative process, of which human creativity is part. He questions the belief in the absolute equivalence of energy and matter, arguing instead that new energy may be coming into the universe all the time. If that's so, then the idea of a perpetual motion machine - a guarantee of crackpot status to anyone bold enough to propose it - could indeed be possible. But how will we know if scientists lack the confidence to strike out in bold new directions?

Modern science claims to have vanquished vitalism - the idea of a living force and purposive vital factors in animals an plants - as long ago as the nineteenth century. In practice it has simply reinvented it in molecular guises, Sheldrake argues. Dawkins justifies his idea of the selfish gene as a metaphor, but other neo-Darwinists like Daniel Dennett appear to take it literally, as if genes have a conscious interest in their future state. In reality, Sheldrake insists, genes are not 'selfish and ruthless, as if they contained gangster homunculi'; there's no evidence that they do anything more than make proteins. They don't carry the instructions for the development of embryos, let alone the intensely goal-directed behaviour demonstrated, for instance, by the wasps who successfully build and repair complex nesting structures no matter what obstacles are put in their way.

The machine metaphors beloved of materialist thinkers are misleading, he insists. No machine starts from small beginnings, grows, forms new structures within itself and then reproduces itself. Yet plants and animals do this all the time and to many people - especially those like pet owners and gardeners who deal with them on a daily basis - it's 'blindingly obvious' that they are living organisms. For scientists to see them as machines propelled only by ordinary physics and chemistry is an act of faith. Sheldrake believes instead that the development of organisms, and animal behaviour, are controlled by 'attractors' in morphogenetic fields, that exert a causal influence and draw the organism towards its goal.

Sheldrake has a lot to say about the unfulfilled promises of molecular biology. For all the excitement over gene science in the past two decades, and the $100 billion biotechnology boom that it fuelled, only a very limited genetic basis has been discovered for human disease. Biologists are drowning in data but can't make much sense of it. The genes associated with development have turned out to be almost identical in mice, humans, flies and reptiles, offering no insights as to why these forms differ so dramatically. In short, he says, it's time to look elsewhere for the causes of biological formation.

On the subject of consciousness Sheldrake points out that even materialists can't decide what causes it, which is why there are so many rival theories. He quotes Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, who is scathing about the way fellow philosophers are willing to deny the reality of their own experience - testament to the power of the materialist faith. He approves Strawson's interest in panspychism, the doctrine that all matter is invested with mental as well as physical aspects. That same conclusion was reached nearly a century ago by the philosophers Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, based on quantum mechanics: that matter is not timeless, and that all physical objects are entities or events that have an inner duration.

There is just one chapter on psychic research: this covers telepathy and precognition, with especial focus on animal telepathy and Sheldrake's own experiments with animals, also telephone telepathy. (The sense of being stared at is covered in a chapter on consciousness.) Sheldrake urges that science pay more attention to animal premonitions of disasters, and describes his 840-strong collection of anecdotal accounts of premonitions in humans, of which 70 per cent are about dangers, disasters or deaths. There is little on sceptics, apart from details of public encounters with two who dismissed his arguments while amply demonstrating they knew nothing about his research, and with Dawkins, who tried unsuccessfully to lure him into a debunking television interview. There follows also a chapter on mechanistic medicine, in which he acknowledges its record of success, but questions whether it is the only kind that works.

Materialists argue that their model has proved so durable, and so resistant to challenge, that there can no longer be any doubt that it is true. Sheldrake argues by contrast that the model is simply reinforcing itself by its expectations. Psychologists and medical researchers know only too well how experimenters' beliefs can influence outcomes. However this is not at all understood in the hard sciences, which as a result hardly at all use blind methods in their experiments. The assumption is that there is a 'correct' outcome, and if you don't get it you're not doing it properly. It would be easy enough to test for experimenter bias in a biochemical experiment on enzymes, for instance, Sheldrake says, but so far no one has taken him up on the idea. One British science teacher agreed that students are influenced by their expectations, but said that was 'what science education is all about' and he certainly wasn't going to open up that particular can of worms in his school.

If psychic phenomena is real, there is even the possibility that scientists can affect the outcomes of experiments psychically. Indeed the belief in mind over matter - so furiously denounced by professional sceptics - has been observed in the physics lab. Wolfgang Pauli was believed by his colleagues - and by himself - to unwittingly interfere with sensitive lab equipment by his mere presence. And remarkably, a biochemistry professor at a major US university even boasted to Sheldrake about his ability to get better results than his colleagues by 'willing' the system to work.

This is a superb and timely book and one for which in a way I have been waiting for the last twenty years. My own academic research has convinced me that psychic phenomena genuinely occur, and that the rejection of it is driven largely by ideology and personal antipathy. That being the case, it's hard to conceive that the materialist model is the whole story - for all its dramatic successes, which of course Sheldrake fully acknowledges. I can't judge how solid the case is for morphic resonance, but there seems to be at least some evidence for it and in theory it helps resolve some major dilemmas. Of course the book won't find favour with most scientists, who will brush it off as a persistence of discredited vitalism. But it may encourage some to be open about the more adventurous views that Sheldrake claims they often express to him in private.

Perhaps more to the point, there's a need for a book like this that's authoritative, wide ranging and accessible, and that challenges the prevailing paradigm for a wider audience. That applies especially to young people whose ideas have not yet been shaped by it, and their curiosity dulled as a result. The publishers were kind enough to send me two hardback copies - an error, no doubt, but I have put it to good use, giving the extra one to my eighteen-year old nephew, who is brimming with curiosity and questions about nature. I'd like to think that his generation have a greater opportunity to question the prevailing dogmas and will eventually forge a new science, one that describes more closely what humans observe and feel about their world.